Jéanpaul Ferro Interview
How did you come to realize that you were a poet?
That’s a great question with an easy answer. When I was 15 years old I attended a high school where I grew up in Scituate, Rhode Island, that really put a strong emphasis on music and the arts. Everyone in our school had to take art classes and really the “Dean of art” at our high school was a woman named Eleanor Thompson. We had to experiment in sculpture, photography, painting, art history, and also in literature. She helped create a literary journal for the high school and in my art class she asked if I could contribute to this journal. Seeing that my brother had the gift of drawing, I told her I would try writing a poem or two for this new literary journal – mind you I had never written a poem before. So I set off and wrote two poems that I thought would suffice and I submitted them to her thinking that was the end of it and that I would never write a poem or anything like that again.
When the journal actually came out it sold around sold 400 copies in a school that only had 900 students. And then about 399 of my peers came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed my writing… I was hooked! For the next 3 years I contributed to our school literary journal until I was made the editor my senior year. And that’s the genesis of how my literary writing career began.
Does poetry have a place in today’s world?
More than any other time in history poetry has a vital role in the world today. Societies are all interconnected via the Internet now. What is happening five thousand miles away in one country has the feeling to it that it might be happening right in our own backyard. The struggles that are actively taking place in country after country, the social ills that are right under your noses, war, poverty, injustice, the destruction of planet earth and its eco-systems are primed to be recorded by writers and poets; and because the world is really a global community now, poetry and literature is all the more important to a whole new range of people who never had the access to poetry, short fiction, and ability of the expressionism that it brings with it.
As a poet I wish more poets took an active role in writing topically. It seems that most poets write by looking inward when ideally they should be looking at the world around them and chronicling it. Also, I’ve heard some criticism that western writers only write about the west when in actuality I think that perception has more to do with the magazines and literary journals that are more inclined to give their audience what they think they want (and in their minds its topics should deal with things mostly within their society).
What’s the poetry scene like in Providence?
Providence has a vibrant arts community. It is home to the world renowned Rhode Island School of Design. Also Providence, and Rhode Island in general, has produced a long list of literary greats, including H.P. Lovecraft, Cormac McCarthy, Sarah Helen Whitman, Pulitzer Prize winners Jhumpa Lahiri and Galway Kinnell, C.D. Wright, who won the 2009 Griffin Prize in Poetry, Ann Wood, Tom Chandler, Michael S. Harper, Ted Berrigan, and Denise Duhamel, just to name a few. Not to mention Providence was a favorite haunt of Edgar Allen Poe who liked to hang out on the East Side at the Providence Athenaeum that still exists today.
In the city of Providence itself there are poetry slams, poetry readings at the Providence Public Library, and there is even a short fiction author’s circle. Also, award winning sculptor Barnaby Evens presents his WaterFire exhibition bi-weekly during the spring, summer, and autumn at Waterplace Park. On WaterFire evenings the 3 rivers at the heart of the city are lit ablaze with over 100 floating pyres. Ethereal music is played along the river walks. There are fire artists, jazz musicians, and all types of interactive sculpture displayed all around the city. Candlelit chandlers are hung up underneath the cities bridges along the river walks. Some evenings there is music, other nights the dancing of India and Pakistan, and other nights there is jazz and ballroom dancing. One evening I was there, a poet had poetry displayed up on the side of the one of the skyscrapers set to music as the words rolled down the building. It’s quite spectacular, especially on those evenings when there are well over 100,000 people who attend.
As far as poetry itself goes, Tom Chandler has a column in the Providence Journal that features local poets twice a month. And Rhode Island is home to the Bryant Literary Journal, Newport Review, Alembic Review, and many other literary journals and presses.
What’s your favourite poem in Jazz?
That’s a tough one. It’s kind of like asking a parent which child of theirs is their favorite. I really like the ambiance of Arrete! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort— and This Much and Letter From a Soldier are both very haunting. But my personal favorite has to be John Updike.
I originally had wanted to write this poem after reading this dreadful John Updike poem where he used the words pallor, diaphanous, and polychrome and his poem was so terribly bad that I wanted, in the bravado that I had in me that day, to show that anyone could write a poem better than he had using those same words. That was the genesis of it. But then as I wrote it this beautiful and heart-breaking poem appeared on the page about the collateral damage of war and the after-effects, effects on other people that could last decades, if not a lifetime, of what it does to other human beings as though they don’t even exist. The poem isn’t taking sides. It’s actually not even political. It’s simply asking you to look at death from the act of war and its after effects; and also the morality of what is taking place when someone dies on the opposite side of whatever side you might think you’re on.
Do you listen to jazz? If so, why?
I do listen to jazz, but truth be told I listen to just about any music that moves me. I feel the same way about art, literature, and film. Great art and music has to move you. The connotation to the book comes from my state of mind at the time I was writing Jazz.
I had been trying, and failing badly, to make it as a writer for almost twenty years. I finally realized that I loved writing so much that I would write even if no one else could read what I wrote. It’s not that I want to write; I can’t help but do it. It’s something that wells up inside of me and just comes out. So around 2004 I made up my mind that I was from then on only going to write for myself and not write to try and be published, which I had been doing since I was 18. The ensuing two books that came out were Essendo Morti – Being Dead, which was nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry, and the aforementioned Jazz. It was freeing, spontaneous, and I let the poems take me where they want to go and not the other way around. When this dawned on me I coined those poems my “jazz” poems, because like jazz they were improvisatorial.
Do you revise your poems a lot?
I do not! Usually I write a poem in one sitting and then I do not revise a poem unless an editor comes back when I submit to a literary journal or magazine and says, you, we like this poem, but would you try changing this? Lo and behold they are usually right on and an editor’s suggestion usually makes it a better poem. But at the time of writing each poem, I don’t get up until a poem is done. It could be completed in 5 minutes or 10 hours. I’m not leaving that chair and computer screen until it is completely done. But it’s taken 25 years of failing and succeeding to get this down pat.
How long did it take you to write all the poems in Jazz?
Jazz came out quite quickly in about 2 ½ weeks. I usually don’t write poems. I usually write books of poems. I have a burst of creativity and within those boundaries I write an entire book. I sit down and write one poem after another – usually in the order you see them placed in one of my collections of poems. Some days I’ve written 15 poems. Some days it could be 1. I do a quick study and write/work in a short amount of time because usually the ideas, words, pictures, and topics are already in my head and all I have to do is record them on the page.
Poetry readings your cup of tea?
No. My father is a gift orator, but I cannot get up in front of more than two people and read out loud anymore. I have a terrible anxiety disorder that basically precludes me from public speaking. I love listening to others read their works. When I write my own work, whether it be poetry, short fiction, or novels, I actually read it aloud as part of the editing process. I actually enjoy this. I enjoy hearing the emotion, the turns of the tongue of the writing heard aloud. But alas I can’t get enough courage anymore to stand out there and read my work aloud.
The most honest being is…
Certainly not human. As humans we are too worried about what everyone else is thinking about us. So we create these masks for ourselves that can be pieced together from money, prestige, fame, cars, jewelry, clothing, religion, atheism, politics, just about any human thing you can think of we put over ourselves to be something we think we ought to be.
Animals are much more honest beings than humans. You can always know exactly what their wants are and whether they are happy or unhappy. And they are not going to do something in order to simply please humans. Not a perfect system, but it is much more honest than being a human being.
How do you view other writers?
I have a love affair with other writers. I’m always looking for writers who have “it” – that gift that you can’t learn. It’s hard to find now, but very satisfying when you find that one writer that just writes so beautifully it leaves you breathless.
Personally, some of my all-time favorite writers are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Michel Houellebecq, and Mark Z. Danielewski. Lately I have been reading Jennifer S. Davis, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Corrine De Winter, and Mark Stand.
Do you write from your gut or mind?
Both. Whether I write poetry, short fiction, or fiction it comes from my gut, but what I’ve learned is that in order for it to be any good the visceral feelings bubbling up inside your soul have to be filtered through your mind and then set down onto paper. I usually am provoked by something when I write about it. This feeling hits me that I can’t keep in. I see the pictures in my mind and I write down what I am seeing. When I was young and completely stupid I just wrote those pictures in my mind down and thought that was good enough. Now that I’ve matured somewhat, I’ve learned to parse those pictures, words, sentiments, ghosts through the words of the story I want to tell.
I think the best thing for any writer is to read everything and anything they can. If you’re a fiction writer you should read poetry. If you’re a poet you should also be reading fiction. You can learn a lot about writing and what works and what doesn’t work by reading a lot. And ultimately you retain a lot of what you’ve read and learned, and in the future, even if it is a long way down the road, this exercise will make you a much better writer. But every writer is different. Still you need to use your gut and your mind together to get it right. At least that’s my philosophy.
Tags: essendo morti - being dead, jazz, jeanpaul ferro, jeanpaul ferro interview, john updike poem, providence arts community, providence journal, rhode island school of design, the role of poetry, tom chandler